It was a breakout season for Division I college hockey in Western New York last year.
Niagara reached its highest national ranking, won the Atlantic Hockey regular season title and advanced to its fourth NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid.
Canisius surged in the final month of the season and shocked most of the conference by winning the championship as the No. 7 seed and automatic qualifier to the NCAA field, its first-ever appearance.
The expectations are high again as the Purple Eagles and Golden Griffins prepare for the season, which includes an early matchup between the teams on Oct. 12 at Dwyer Arena. It will be the season opener for Canisius. Niagara will open a week earlier, Oct. 5, when it hosts Clarkson.
In the preseason coaches’ poll released on Tuesday, Niagara was the preseason No. 1 while Canisius was No. 4. Each team received three first-place votes.
Mercyhurst and Air Force were tied for second with the Lakers receiving the most first place votes (four) in the poll. Air Force received two first-place votes.
“Every year the league gets little bit tighter and tighter,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, whose sixth-seeded Lakers lost to Canisius in the championship game. “It’s anybody’s league. I think you saw that last year when the sixth and seventh seeds were playing for the championship. … The way the poll went it’s clear; it’s anybody’s league. It’s going to be a great year for Atlantic Hockey with a lot of excitement.”
Niagara has some experience with expectations. Last year was the fourth trip to the NCAA tournament for the Purple Eagles. They finished 23-10-5 overall, 20-5-2 in conference games and lost to No. 7 North Dakota, 2-1, in the first round of the NCAA tournament in March.
But Niagara took some hits on its roster. Goaltender Carsen Chubak, Atlantic Hockey’s Player of the Year, left after signing an American Hockey League contract with the Adirondack Phantoms, the top affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers
Also gone are graduated seniors Giancarlo Iuorio, the team’s leading scorer, and Dan Weiss, the cornerstone of the defense.
“What I’ve learned is that you have to have great assistant coaches, and Tim Madsen and Pat Oliveto have done an unbelievable job keeping the shelf stocked with quality players and good students,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “The expectations are huge around here. If we don’t make it to the NCAA tournament, it’s a down year for us. That’s how we’ve always thought from Day One when we started the program 18 years ago.
“We have 10 freshman who are all expected to contribute. There’s no science to putting a team together. It’s like putting a puzzle together. I think all 10 bring different qualities to the team and hopefully will keep us at the top of the league.”
High expectations are new for Canisius after its first NCAA tournament. The Griffs lost, 4-3, to top-ranked Quinnipiac in the first round. Quinnipiac went on to the championship game, losing to Yale. The Griffs went 19-19-5 overall, 12-13-2 in conference play, and rode an eight-game winning streak to the championship.
The Griffs return 23 players including goaltender Tony Capobianco and leading scorer Kyle Gibbons.
Instead of entering the season with the goal of building, Canisius is looking to learn from its success.
“It’s been a fun challenge and a much different mentality,” coach Dave Smith said. “Getting to the league Final Four, we know how difficult it is. We’re learning from other teams, and now that we’ve sort of raised the bar, we want to keep the bar up there at a high standard.
“We haven’t had a practice yet, but the guys have come back in great shape. They’re motivated and hungry to get after it. … I don’t think we’ll do anything different but learn from our experience. …I don’t think we have unfinished business but we’ll have a different awareness if we’re able to get back to the national tournament again.”